Unlocking Heaven’s Jail

Heaven’s Jail singer/songwriter Francesco Ferorelli talks with Pollstar about his journey from being a fan of rap and metal to being compared to Kris Kristofferson and Loudon Wainwright.

Ferorelli could be considered a late bloomer when it comes to poignant songwriting.  Originally a drummer, he didn’t begin writing his own material until he was a young adult.

Released in August, the latest album from Heaven’s Jail – Ace Called Zero – was produced by Phosphorescent, aka Matthew Houck, who has describes Ferorelli as his “favorite kind of songwriter,” a “sensitive but not sappy” talent who “has the ability to casually sneak complex imagery and metaphor into a deceptively simple package.”

Ferorelli and his band made up of James Preston on bass and harmonies and Ethan Schmid on drums have been bringing Ace Called Zero to the masses on their first national tour.  Pollstar caught up with him the morning after Heaven’s Jail made its Los Angeles debut at the Silverlake Lounge.

How do you get from rap and Black Sabbath to an album like Ace Called Zero?

Rap music and heavy metal … that’s the stuff I grew up listening to as a kid.  That’s just kind of what I gravitated towards.  I grew up in New York City. Being my age … I guess … punk music wasn’t really what you would listen to if you wanted to piss your parents off.  That moment had come and gone. Rap music was the stuff that was kind of like threatening or spooky. … That’s my first love and I still love all that stuff and listen to it.

When I grew up they used to have these kind of cheapo CD stores.  I don’t know if they were bootlegs … unauthorized or whatever, but you could get a greatest hits CD by Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings for, like, $5 or $7.  Being a kid, I didn’t have a lot of money, so I’d go to these stores and take a chance on stuff.  Johnny Cash was like the gateway drug.  It started going from there. 

Country music is not for everybody, it doesn’t resonate with everybody, but for me, I really liked it. From Johnny Cash it’s a short leap to Kristofferson.  Other ’70s singer/songwriter dudes, outlaw country and stuff – I loved that.  If you love music, you do your own investigating. You want to discover where stuff comes from.

The Doors are definitely a big favorite.  I’ve loved them since I was a kid and never stopped liking them … there’s some of that in our sound.  We love that stuff.

What was the first show you ever saw?

I think I saw Blood, Sweat & Tears. My parents took me when I was a little kid. As far as when I first bought tickets to see a show, I used to go to a lot of crummy, like, second-wave New York hardcore shows when I was a kid.  I’d go to Coney Island High and CBGBs.  They’d have matinee shows on Sundays.  I saw Motörhead and Wasp in high school. That was pretty killer. 

New York is weird. … Nobody had garages so there weren’t that many bands. As you grow up and meet people in bands, people talk about, if they grew up in the suburbs, they’d go to VFW Hall or something. There were a lot of shows around.  It didn’t really occur to kids in New York to start bands because you have to pay an hourly rehearsal room and [other things].  It’s more complicated. So it was a different scene.

With real estate being an ultra-valuable commodity, finding a place where a band can be as loud as it wanted to be had to be pretty tough.

Yeah. We made it happen. Me and a couple of friends would rent really rundown $10-an-hour rehearsal rooms.  They’d have a little boom box and you could bring a cassette and record whatever obscenities you could come up with.

Were your parents into music?

They wanted me to play piano.  I played piano for 10 years when I was a kid. They wanted me to play classical music.  They weren’t tyrannical about it or anything but they didn’t play me their records.  I found out later that they actually owned cool records like The Beatles and The Stones [and] Led Zeppelin. They didn’t expose me to … ’60s and ’70s rock. … You know how some people have parents who played them all their cool records?  My folks didn’t do that.  But they did encourage me to play music. I don’t really remember playing the piano as a kid but apparently I was good at it and took to it pretty well. But at the time it was like more homework.  I’d play half an hour of piano and then do homework.  I quit as soon as I could and I totally regret that.

How do you approach songwriting?

I write the songs and they’re mostly finished when I bring them to the guys. I play with a bass player and drummer who have been with me since the beginning. That’s the core.  I write by hook or by crook, any way I can.  I have songs that are all lyrics, three versus and a chorus, and never found music that I was happy with.  Sometimes I’ll have a guitar riff laying around and try to crowbar it into something and it doesn’t work.

Some songs write themselves.  They come really quickly and you get the words and music at the same time.  Others you’re hammering away at forever.

Sometimes it will just be a line, something I hear, something that pops into my head.  Sometimes it just falls from the sky. I’m not really sure where it comes from but you know you should pursue it.  Sometimes it ends up … going nowhere and it’s nothing.

I can’t sing bad lyrics. That’s how I know if a song is working out – if I can get the words into a place where I can sing them all with conviction. If there’s a clunker lyric in there, I can’t sing it with any conviction.

The text is important.  Sometimes we’ll flush out the arrangements together.

When you bring your songs to the band, do you play them a demo of a song, or is it more like live auditioning?

I think auditioning is actually a pretty good way to characterize it.  Sometimes I’ll show them [a song] that I think is pretty cool and we’ll try to do it together and it’s not working. … You’re like, “Well, this song’s dead in the water. Back to the drawing board.” We usually know, pretty soon, if [a song] has legs.

Do the songs that don’t work go into a collection of unused material to be drawn from later?

Sometimes the whole song wasn’t that great but there might be a couple of good lines that you can harvest for spare parts. … Sometimes that works.

When did you begin writing songs?

When I was 20, 21.  I didn’t show them to people for a really long time.  I played drums.  That’s what I did all through high school.  I was [in] heavy metal bands, rock bands.  That was how I always thought it would be.  I started, when I was about 20, 21, to record things on guitar.  I didn’t have the confidence to show it to anybody.  I guess around 2008, 2009, my heavy metal band broke up.  I spent another year playing drums and trying to find people to start a band.  Going on Craigslist and having weird, dismal experiences.  It became apparent that I have to pursue this stuff.  I wasn’t going to stop playing music.  I have to get a band together, I have to front the band, I have to sing and play guitar.  That was totally new territory for me.  That was … about 2009.

You released a couple of records via Bandcamp.

The first record is self-titled.  The name has sort of streamlined since then.  The first record is called The Heaven’s Jail Band and the next one is Heaven’s Jail  [released] 2010 and Angel Maker was 2012.

Are you still drawing from those first two records for live shows?

Not the first one. There’s definitely songs from Angel Maker in our live set.  I’m really proud of Angel Maker … I feel [it] is a very good record. It wasn’t heard by as many people as I would have liked, but it’s a slow burner.  People will come around to it eventually. …  Ace Called Zero is a lot more stripped down … pretty sparse.  Angel Maker is a bigger band.  We were recording as a five-piece.  I had a couple of my buddies who were in the Phosphorescent touring band playing with us.  There’s another lead guitar player and keyboards.

How do you know Matthew Houck?

It’s not a super long friendship.  We met a few years ago and became good friends quite quickly, got along really well. I met him through the guys in his band.  I like to tell people I saved his life in bar fight in Guadalajara.  That’s more interesting.

We hit it off. … He had some time on his hands.  He offered [to produce].  He was like, “What are you guys thinking about for your next record? … Maybe I can help you guys out.”

He didn’t track the thing. We recorded it with my buddy Ben Greenberg from the band The Men.  Ben also recorded Angel Maker.  We took [Ace Called Zero] to Matthew’s studio and mixed and produced it there. And he did additional recording, overdubs and stuff.

What’s your touring setup like? Is it three guys driving to the next gig, taking turns driving?

It’s a station wagon.  We play a pretty stripped-down setup – drums, bass and guitar.  We’ve done a few tours like that and it works out thus far.  If we expand the lineup, if we get another guitar player or a keyboard player … I’ve been trying to put off selling my car as long as I can but I’ll do that eventually and get a van.  Right now we can do it as is.

Are you doing your own booking?

I had a bit of help for this tour. I’ve been playing music for a long time and have booked tours myself.  I can do some of that.  We had a bit of help and I’m looking forward to having more help.

What do you like about Ace Called Zero?

I think that it stands apart from what’s going on right now.  Not a knock on anybody but I think we’re doing a unique thing and the way we approach it is more like an old-school kind of way.  We recorded it live.  We try to make records the way the records that we love sound. … It’s really direct.  It’s an unapologetic way of presenting the music.  I think the zeitgeist right now is really lush and reverby and … chilled out. It’s not really bracing [and] direct.  We’re proud of the music we make, we’re confident in it and we want to present it forcefully and plainly.  I think making a really spare, kind of austere recording is a different thing than what is going on right now. It’s going against the zeitgeist.

Is there anything about the album that you don’t like?

You always hear something later that you think you could have improved upon. … But you have to commit to the material and record it at a certain point.

After songs are recorded, do you see them as continual works in progress?

I think up to a certain point.  We tinker with things a bit.  Songs have a half-life and we can change them a bit to suit the lineup.  Sometimes they were recorded as a bigger band and we have to alter them because we’re a three-piece. They are open to a bit of tinkering but [a song] has to maintain its core and what I initially liked about it.

Are there moments where you just grab your guitar and hit open mics or other places where you can spend, say 20 minutes or so trying out a few new songs?

I have done that.  Usually I’ll do it if asked.  For a while, in between giving up drums and figuring out how to front the band and present the material, I did do some open mic stuff. But I wouldn’t tell anyone about it.  I was [getting] my feet wet and being in a different position in a band.  I did a bit of that.  It’s good practice but you only play a couple of songs.  When you’re just starting to get into it, you have to get off and let someone else play.

Once in a while I’ll play solo.  But it’s the exception, not the rule.  I prefer playing in a rock band.

Your advance press contains the quote, “I pick up the newspaper and it’s an escapable ecological collapse as fact.  Financial inequality has become modern feudalism.  Violence and exploitation are de facto conditions.” Do you see your lyrics as reflections of current events?

I think in a sort of subtext kind of way.  I don’t like political songwriting.  But as Dylan said, “To be on the side of the oppressed doesn’t necessarily mean you’re political.”  The uncertainty, the fear and the conflict of what’s going on, I don’t want to do it in an overt or sloganeering kind of way.  It’s much more powerful, timeless and elegant to imbue the content and the essence of your music with the problems of the time rather than rail about them.  There’s a lot of joy and release [in our sound] but there’s also a lot of turmoil and darkness in it.  I think that is an expression of what’s going on.

Where do you want to be five years from now?

I’m really proud of the work we’ve done but I feel the best is ahead of us.  I’d like to be traveling, have at least one or a couple of records under our belts.  We play for the respect of the people we respect, the love of the people that we love. … I’d like to play to some more folks and make records that really take people’s breath away.

Upcoming shows for Heaven’s Jail:

Sept. 19 – New York, N.Y., City Winery NYC
Sept. 24 – Baltimore, Md., The Crown
Sept. 25 – Knoxville, Tenn., Pilot Light
Sept. 26 – Nashville, Tenn., Stone Fox
Sept. 27 – Nashville, Tenn., Grimey’s
Sept. 28 – Milwaukee, Wis., Usable Space
Sept. 30 – Minneapolis, Minn., Icehouse
Oct. 1 – Rock Island, Ill., Rozz Tox
Oct. 2 – Chicago, Ill., Empty Bottle
Oct. 3 – Newport, Ky., The Southgate House Revival
Oct. 4 – Columbus, Ohio, Cafe Bourbon Street
Oct. 5 – Washington, D.C., Velvet Lounge
Oct. 6 – Philadelphia, Pa., Kung Fu Necktie
Oct. 8 – Brooklyn, N.Y., Death By Audio
Oct. 14 – New York, N.Y., Mercury Lounge

Please visit the Heaven’s Jail Facebook page and Twitter feed for more information.